Black-tailed gull

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(HOST) Last month, a special autumn visitor showed up at Charlotte’s Town Beach. Tom Slayton has these observations.

(SLAYTON) Amateur birder Julie Hart was simply trying to get
a better signal on her cellphone as she stood on the bank over-
looking Lake Champlain at the Charlotte Town Beach on October 18. After she tested her cellphone she scanned the flock of gulls on the lake in front of her.

Ring-billed gulls they were, the familiar grey-and-white gull known to birders as “the McDonald’s Gull.”

But one of those ring-billed gulls looked different – a darker blue-
gray across the back, its folded wings a little longer. Its beak was tipped with red: a tell-tale field mark, and, when it flew, an unusu-
ally broad black band on its tail showed up clearly.

Expert birders confirmed that the bird was, in fact, a rarity. It was a black-tailed gull, and it had never before been seen in Vermont! Black-tailed gulls are native to the Far East, to China and Japan.
They are sometimes seen on the West Coast of North America and are widespread throughout the Pacific.

But Vermont’s black-tailed gull was a long, long way from home, and a certifiable rarity. And so E-mails began to hum, and the bright, busy, slightly zany subculture of serious birdwatching
was put on alert. Birders across the eastern half of the U.S.
began to make plans to travel to Vermont.

Within a week, semi-maniacal birdwatchers eager to enlarge their life lists began to arrive from Virginia, Pennsylvania – even Florida – to see the rare gull. People with binoculars and cameras and serious spotting scopes crowded onto the bank above Charlotte’s rocky little beach. And hardly anyone went away disappointed. The bird was most often seen floating on the waves, right in front
of the beach: a sitting gull. It regularly showed off by doing fly-bys for its fans.

In fact, its friendly behavior made one observer ask if perhaps the Asian visitor had bird flu! More likely, it seemed to me, was that the bird had been fed by humans and recognized the chance for
a free meal whenever anyone showed up.

There were some concerns that perhaps an over-eager birder had been feeding the gull to keep it around, and that maybe that was illegal. Others worried that the bird might be given junk food! (This is Vermont, after all!)

At any rate, this very special gull was subsequently seen eating native rotted fish and crawfish – undoubtedly organic – and scavan-
ging away, just like any other gull.

Bird migration – even bird migration that goes as spectacularly awry as it obviously has in this case – is an amazing thing. For weeks now, large and small birds have been headed south, navigating by the stars or landmarks or magnetic fields. Or something. Science still doesn’t completely understand bird migration.

But, at the very least, the black-tailed gull reminds us that we live in one world. One great round world – mostly water – that tran-
scends all political boundaries, and shares a single blue sky, a single interconnected ocean. It is populated by many marvelous creatures, including gulls.

And it is still a world of deep mystery. And surprises.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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